An estimated one out of every 14 children under age 18 has experienced the death of a parent or sibling, but the unique needs of grieving students are often overlooked in the college admission process.
Pamela Roth Appleton, associate director of college counseling at Phillips Exeter Academy (NH), is working to change that. Using funds from a NACAC Imagine Grant, Appleton has launched an awareness campaign designed to educate admission counseling professionals about the effects of childhood grief and the challenges affected students may face in the transition to college. Along with Christina Breen, a fellow Exeter educator, Appleton recently produced a four-page brochure. The publication highlights potential pain points in the admission process and includes best practices and further resources.
“It’s difficult to talk about childhood grief, but it’s actually more prevalent that many of us think,” said Appleton, who hopes the brochure will help foster more awareness and support for students. “In a high school of 1,000, 70 students could be carrying such a loss. And those children, as they enter the college admission process, are really an invisible population.”
Most standard college application forms don’t include an easy way, such as a box to check, for an applicant to identify themselves as a grieving student. But many teens who have experienced the death of a parent or sibling will feel the loss acutely at some point in the admission process, even if it’s been several years since their loved one passed away.
“A lot of times, big life events make you realize that the person isn’t there in a way you don’t experience on the day-to-day,” explained Ella Claire Walsh, an Exeter grad whose father died unexpectedly when she was 13. “I personally didn’t feel like it was going to be a problem—until it was.”
Even though Walsh got an early start on her applications, she often ended up scrambling to meet deadlines.
“I would find myself really struggling filling out the background information and putting it off until the last minute,” recalls Walsh, now a senior studying psychological science at the University of Vermont. “Then there are all the essays that ask you to write about the hardest point in your life and how you overcame it. Sometimes I would write something, but I wasn’t able to make myself go back over it again (to edit it).”
Appleton hopes the brochure will help foster more awareness and support for students like Walsh. The death of a parent or sibling frequently results in additional financial, emotional, and familial burdens—all of which can impact a student’s college search and selection process.
Additionally, although a teen may struggle to articulate how a loss has shaped them, that information is often crucial for colleges looking to gain a complete picture of an applicant. Appleton’s brochure offers tips to help admission professionals broach sensitive subjects with grieving students.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we are really hoping this campaign can help prompt some conversations on both the high school side and the college side,” said Appleton. “Grief can make high school challenging…but the kids themselves are strong,” she added.
Counselors and admission professionals are encouraged to download and share the Admission Awareness for Grieving Children brochure. Appleton and Breen also plan to create a website with more tips, resources, and student testimonials.
“This all started with an Imagine Grant, which shows that a small grant can lead to big returns,” said Appleton, who has since received additional grant funding from other sources to support her awareness campaign. “Receiving the Imagine Grant was validation that, yes, this is a topic that’s worth a bit more explanation and exploration…If it makes just one student feel supported or feel heard, then it’s totally been worth it.”
Donate to NACAC’s Imagine Fund: Donations to NACAC’s Imagine Fund are used to provide grants to individuals or NACAC affiliates. The grants support professional development as well as innovative programs serving students and/or the profession.
Admitted writer/editor Mary Stegmeir welcomes additional comments and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.